When Emeka Okafor boarded the team bus following UConn's 76-67
win over Georgia Tech in the national championship game on April
5, the first thing he wanted to know was where his video camera
was. All eyes had been fixed on the Huskies' elegant 6'9" center
since the season began in November, yet in his finest hour all
Okafor wanted to do was look around and appreciate the view. That
such humility would emanate from a superstar was not lost on
UConn coach Jim Calhoun. "He's the epitome of what we want in
college athletics," Calhoun says. "I don't think you're going to
see the likes of Emeka Okafor come around for a long, long time."
Okafor's three-year career at Connecticut (he will forgo his
senior season and enter the NBA draft) is worth remembering, but
his junior year was unforgettable. Despite being saddled with a
stress fracture in his back for much of the year, Okafor averaged
17.6 points, 11.6 rebounds and 4.1 blocks per game. He was at his
best when it mattered the most, scoring all of his game-high 18
points in the second half of UConn's comeback win over Duke in
the national semifinals and finishing with 24 points and 15
rebounds against the Yellow Jackets in the championship game.
Those accomplishments alone would make Okafor worthy of being
named SI's Player of the Year, but of course there is one more.
Okafor carries a 3.76 GPA, and next month he will receive his
degree in finance, having earned it in just three years.
Okafor's performance on the season's final weekend elevated him
just enough in a tight, two-way race with Jameer Nelson, Saint
Joseph's sensational senior point guard. Nelson's statistics and
accomplishments this season were impressive: He led the Hawks
(30-2) to the first undefeated regular season by any team since
1990-91, by averaging 20.6 points and 5.3 assists per game. But
no player did more for his team on both ends of the floor than
Okafor. One of the the Huskies' biggest weaknesses was their
perimeter defense, but with Okafor manning the paint, UConn led
the nation in field-goal-percentage defense (.369).
As an interior presence who demanded constant attention, Okafor
enabled his freshman frontcourtmates, Josh Boone and Charlie
Villanueva, to prosper inside while ensuring that sharp-shooters
like Rashad Anderson and Ben Gordon got clean looks on the
perimeter. Okafor's selflessness inspired a team-first culture
that helped the Huskies win the Big East tournament despite his
missing three games with back pain and stay close with Duke while
he sat on the bench for most of the first half because of foul
"To be at the point I am right now is just crazy to me," Okafor
said during the Final Four. "Sometimes I'm like, Wow, I'm lucky."
College basketball is equally lucky to have had a player like
Will Emeka Okafor become SI's Sportsman of the Year for 2004? To
cast your vote, and to get more college basketball player of the
year coverage, go to si.com/basketball/ncaa.